Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Ghost Story


Just over halfway through David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ – that is to say after fifty minutes or so of minimal dialogue and the communication of ideas and emotions via imagery, music and deliberately slow pacing – there’s a party scene in which a completely random character delivers a five-minute monologue on the passing of time, the inevitability of death, the impulse to leave something behind and the nature of what endures in the name of humankind and why and whether this enduring is, in and of itself, inherently meaningful.

A five-minute scene, in other words, in which writer-director Lowery finds it necessary, for some bewildering reason, to have a not particularly charismatic actor stodgily verbalise everything the film has communicated thus far in a beautiful, poignant, hypnotically compelling and quintessentially non-verbal manner. It’s an annoying scene – as inelegant conceptually as it is unnecessary intellectually – and if Lowery were to take ‘A Ghost Story’ back into the editing room and snip it out he would immediately transfigure a very very good film into an outright masterpiece.

‘A Ghost Story’ concerns itself, essentially, with two characters although plenty of other people drift through the film. The fact that we never really get to know any of these other people is a purposeful aesthetic decision. Their lives are almost on fast forward, so quickly do they enter the film, inhabit a very specific place for a brief period, then move on. The lives of our main characters, however … well, that’s where the film finds what I might otherwise describe as its heart or soul, but a better description for ‘A Ghost Story’ would be its memory and its terrible sense of endlessness.

Our main characters are called only C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara). C is a musician and an introvert. He clings onto a ramshackle house that M wants to move out of, claiming it has “history” (“not as much as you’d think,” she shoots back in a line that comes loaded, by the time she delivers it, with bitter irony), while M despairs of his lackadaisical attitude to life and tendency to hedge decision-making and responsibility. Still, what they have together seems to be the real deal – certainly if M’s grief after C dies in a car accident is anything to by. That wasn’t a spoiler, by the way.

M says goodbye to C’s mortal remains as he lies on a mortuary gurney. She pulls a white sheet back over him before she leaves. Returning home, it takes her a lot longer to say goodbye. M – or at least M’s ghost – rises from the gurney and makes a slow, defeated journey to the house they shared. Where he remains.

The first brilliant, beautiful thing that Lowery achieves is to have a man wearing a sheet with eyeholes cut into it as his ghost and it actually come across as heartbreakingly sad rather than utterly ridiculous or camp. Later, when M sees a fellow ghost in a neighbouring house, this other ghost’s sheet is patterned with flowers. It took me a moment or two: M died on a morgue trolley, this other spirit died at home under a patterned bed sheet. The attempt at communication between these remnants, and the abrupt departure of the latter when she (I strongly got the impression of the feminine though I’m not sure why or how) realises no-one she knew is going to return, will also break your heart.

The film’s notorious pie-eating scene – which is already coming to wrongly define ‘A Ghost Story’ – isn’t quite as poignant, but it says a lot about grief, survivor’s guilt and how it’s a bad idea to shoulder the pain of bereavement alone. Like everything that ‘A Ghost Story’ does – which is to say, everything single frame of it bar the lousy party scene – the communication is purely visual, slowly paced and forces the viewer into observing events from the ghost’s perspective. Not his literal POV, I hasten to add (the ghost is often in the same shot as other characters), but his perspective. The difference is crucial.

Lowery uses extended takes that recall Tarkovsky, while the look of the film is reminiscent of David Lynch’s small town Americana. The Tarkovsky touchstone is the more important. What Lowery achieves – miraculously, given that slender 92 minute running time – is to document the passage of time: fast for the various residents who inhabit C and M’s house after M finally packs up and leaves to start a new life; slow, painfully slow, for M in the immediate aftermath of C’s death; and functionally endless for C.

At some point after the party scene (have I mentioned how much I dislike the party scene?), Lowery throws the mother of all curveballs and poses the question: what happens when even a ghost tires of (un)life? How he answers that question is something I can imagine frustrating the hell out of a lot of people. At least one writer on film, whose opinions I hold as damn close to gospel, outright hates the direction ‘A Ghost Story’ takes in its last third. Personally, and with an eye discreetly turned to one specific temporal cheat, I found Lowery’s approach daring, provocative and philosophical. This would be a good moment, however, to acknowledge how important Daniel Hart’s score is vouchsafing Lowery’s overall vision. Hart’s soundtrack is a thing of beauty.

With the exception of that one damned scene, ‘A Ghost Story’ is as close to perfection as any film I’ve seen on the big screen this year has come. It is the most serious and mature discourse on the nature of love that you’re likely to see without there being subtitles at the bottom of the screen. It is the most affecting enquiry into death, memory and the nature of what remains that has been produced this decade. Its cinematography, performances and music (did I mention how much I love Daniel Hart’s score?) synergise to beautiful effect.

That fucking party scene. It comes stumbling into a movie that should have been a perfect ten and knocks it down a whole half a point.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ – while wonderfully monickered – would have benefited from any number of different titles, the most obvious being the original title of the graphic novel it’s based on: ‘Valerian and Laureline’. Because this is equally Laureline’s film. Perhaps more Laureline’s than Valerian’s. Actually, no perhaps about it. This is a film in which Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is so badly miscast that it could have scuppered the whole production … were it not for the sheer delight of Cara Delevingne’s performance as Laureline.

So maybe we should just call it ‘Laureline and the Wet Lettuce Leaf’. Or, in ‘Friends’ stylee, ‘The Old Where a Gamine Catwalk Model Gives a Better Performance Than Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke or Herbie Hancock’. Or, in abject frustration that it seems to be heading towards being a flop, ‘The Luc Besson Sci-Fi Opus That’s Actually Better Than The Fifth Element and Fuck the Haters’. Or given how deliriously action-packed, joyously colourful and exuberantly imagined it is, ‘The Curiously Overlooked Summer Tentpole Release That’s a Fuckton More Entertaining Than Anything Marvel Have Tossed in Our Direction For Ages’.

Personally, and for the purposes of this review, I’m going with ‘Laureline: The Movie’. After a handful of nothing roles in unremarkable productions (‘Anna Karenina’, ‘The Face of an Angel’), a likeable turn in indie film ‘Paper Towns’ and being utterly wasted in the cluster fuck that was ‘Suicide Squad’, Delevingne grabs the role of Laureline with both hands and reinvents herself as the kind of sexy, sassy heroine who demands the camera’s unconditional worship. On this showing alone, I’d put her up there with the bona fide icons of Hollywood’s golden age. So, at the risk of Mrs Agitation consigning me to the doghouse, here’s a raised glass to Cara Delevingne, the Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner of the Instagram generation.

*ceases typing … takes cold shower*

Where was I? Oh, yes. Luc Besson’s ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ ‘Laureline: The Movie’. Narratively, it’s a massively overcomplicated space opera with an essentially simple story at its heart. Is this a bad thing? Overcomplication and space opera go hand in hand, and ‘Laureline: The Movie’ is no more self-indulgent or show-offery in its world building than your average Peter F. Hamilton novel.


I’m not even going to bother synopsising the plot. Besson overcomplicates it to allow for more genre tropes and more world-building. This is a movie whose visuals are the raison d’être and the narrative exists to move Valerian and Laureline from one location, one alien race, one production design orgasm to another. This is no bad thing: ‘Laureline: The Movie’ is the most visually gorgeous and extravagantly imagined work Besson has ever put his name to; it is, at one and the same time, a big-hearted homage to a certain era of sci-fi, and an expression of Besson’s credentials as auteur.

Narrative as a justification for moving an audience around a filmic chessboard, pausing here and there to deliver the kind of set piece that exists purely to demonstrate its own bravura, is a tag you can hang everyone from Hitchcock to Nolan by way of Clouzot, Frankenheimer, Friedkin and Tarantino, not to mention everyone who ever directed a giallo. Which is to say that most of the criticisms levelled against ‘Laureline: The Movie’ are total bollocks weighed against the pantheon of accepted classics. So you’re hating on Besson’s latest for the very same reasons that you unironically love ‘Barbarella’ as a camp delight? Yeah, whatever.

‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ has two problems. The first is DeHaan – a likeable enough actor elsewhere on his CV but wrong for the role of Valerian in the way that John Inman would be wrong for a biopic of Bendigo or Dwayne Johnson as Charles Hawtry. The second is Rihanna, making the jump from shit pop singer to shit actress. To mitigate Rihanna’s performance, her intro is cannily staged to resemble a music video, thereby establishing a pop culture rationale for her character. No such excuse exists for DeHaan. The only reason any fucking scene he’s foregrounded in or line of dialogue he delivers works is because of Delevingne’s reaction shot. It’s as if, thirty seconds into the first day of shooting, Besson realised that she was his film-length insurance policy.


Beyond DeHaan and Rihanna, though, the film is just pure delight and spectacle from the stand-up-and-applaud brilliant opening sequence (played out to David Bowie) to the tense but mercifully not over-egged finale … and can I just say here, thank you thank you thank you for not dragging out the climactic setpiece to four times its feasible length the way every other fucking blockbuster of the last decade has.

Spectacle. Set design. World building. Brain-searingly gorgeous visuals. And on top of it all, Develingne in excelsis. Yes, I accept that I’m in something of a minority here. Maybe I’m in the weird yet privileged position of Luc Besson having spent hundreds of millions in making a film for me alone. If so, merci beaucoup; I owe you one.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dunkirk


At its best, ‘Dunkirk’ is a tense, immersive and visceral experience that practically screams to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The dogfights are staged so that the vast expanse of sea and sky are abruptly juxtaposed with the claustrophobic interior of the Spitfires. Scenes of men trying to escape torpedoed or dive-bombed ships strive for a Brueghel-like level of hellish intensity.

There is enough in ‘Dunkirk’ that works – and works well – for me to hesitate in calling it a failure or even outright say that I was disappointed. I was perplexed, though, that’s for sure – Nolan makes some aesthetic and narrative decisions that are frankly baffling – and I was more than often frustrated.

Things start interestingly enough with a group of English soldiers, who may have been separated from their unit or may be deserters – sneaking through the narrow streets of Dunkirk, seeing what they can steal from deserted households. German planes are dropping propaganda leaflets, two of which our immediate and ostensible hero Tommy* (Fionn Whitehead) grabs from the air and stuffs down the front of his trousers. Not too much later on, he’ll drop his breeches on the beach to take a shit and the inference is that he’s saved Adolf’s best efforts at demoralisation purely to wipe his arse on. But Nolan, for all that he’s half an hour off gleefully wallow in blood and bashed-in heads and third-degree burns, tiptoes away from Tommy’s required toilet break and even stages the scene such that Tommy might not have answered the call of nature anyway.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that Nolan should have gone all real-time defecation à la ‘Kings of the Road’, but if you’re starting your movie with an I-wipe-my-arse-on-Hitler’s-propaganda note, then don’t be fucking coy about it. Anyway, Tommy’s possibly postponed poop sees him make the acquaintance of Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) whose name is subsequently revealed not to be Gibson but the script doesn’t give him any other name so I’ll continue calling him Gibson. Tommy and Gibson decide to get off Dunkirk beach by any means necessary, first by impersonating stretcher-bearers (they’re booted off the ship by the medical orderlies), and then by a feigned act of heroism in front of an officer which sees them herded onto the next troopship. Which is promptly torpedoed and they find themselves back on the beach.

Their travails are intercut with the sea crossing of Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their friend George (Barry Keoghan) after the navy requisition Dawson’s pleasure yacht as one of the flotilla of “little ships”; and a dogfight with the Luftwaffe by RAF flyboys Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy). I use “flyboys” not as a derogatory term but to indicate how the script portrays them. Remember that ‘Family Guy’ episode where Stewie, on trying to join the RAF, is asked what his qualifications are and replies, “I have a British accent, I’m possibly homosexual and my wife’s just awful”? Well, that’s the level of characterisation on display here.

Nolan straight-up tells the audience from the outset that these three points of view occupy temporally different spaces: a week for the scenes on the beach, a day for the “little ships” to make the channel crossing, collect survivors and return; and an hour for the dogfight. He proceeds to intercut between them according to dramatic beats and the rhythms of Hans Zimmer’s score**. And at the cost of any sense of continuity. Granted, when he pulls all three timelines together with the tension ratcheted to the absolute maximum, it’s a genuine coup de theatre and pretty much justifies the ticket price.

The fact that we’re two-thirds plus through the film before he effects this coup de theatre, however, is indicative of the wider problem. As with so much of his work, Nolan approaches the story of Dunkirk as an exercise in non-linear experimentalism and showy imagery. His grasp of character and how men interact in the theatre of conflict is flimsy at best. Peckinpah would have focused on group dynamics and the mindset of the soldier; hell, even David Ayer would have known where to focus the drama. Nolan, to put it bluntly, misses the real story even as he continually stumbles over bits of it.

Case in point: Tommy tries to join a line of soldiers on the beach and is basically told to fuck off (“Grenadiers, mate,” a gruff squaddie says, eyeballing him). The military as a class system in microcosm: a fascinating angle Nolan could have explored, but no – a single throwaway line of dialogue and the theme is never revisited.

Case in point: James D’Arcy’s colonel is appalled by the bland assurances of Kenneth Branagh’s commander and seems, just for a moment, as if he were about to vent anger at the callous idiocy of the top brass back home, but no – the moment passes and he remembers he’s a British officer in a war movie.

Case in point: someone notes that the tide is coming in, another character asks how they know, and the curt response is that the incoming tide washes the dead – those drowned, burned or shot during an earlier (failed) evacuation attempt – ashore. Cut to a column of men, knee deep in the sea, waiting on a ship that might not even fucking exist, pushing away from them said incoming corpses. They do so hesitantly and respectfully but not without some measure of disgust. Or maybe despair.

And I couldn’t help thinking that this is where the real drama was. Imagine being one of those men on the beach. Lined up in columns. A pretence of military discipline enforced even in the aftermath of abject defeat. No certainty of rescue. The Germans pushing ever closer. Stukas strafing the beach. The promise of being on the next ship cruelly mocked by the previous ship erupting in flames then keeling over and being taken by the cold grey waves. This is where the drama is: the hope, the despair, the terror, the horrible sense of inevitability as the whine of a Stuka’s engine cuts across the sky. This is the story Nolan should have told. And yet he takes pains – and teeth-grindingly clichéd and melodramatic pains at that – to keep Tommy and Gibson off the beach. His only real focus on the men on the beach is the opportunity they present to frame a shot. He flips from the OCD delight of constructing purely geometrical images, to the childish delight in flipping over the first domino in an elaborately constructed sequence and chuckling as he watches them fall.

Likewise, the focus on Dawson does real damage to his portrayal of the “little ships”. For eighty solid minutes, you’d swear it was only his pleasure yacht making the channel crossing. Nolan doesn’t show a single other non-naval vessel until the last 15 minutes when a metric fuckton of them suddenly appear out of nowhere and Hans Zimmer loses control of himself on the soundtrack. What should be the key moment is reduced to here-comes-the-cavalry cliché.

What really kills the film, though, is two moments of bilious melodrama – one in a beached fishing boat where Tommy, Gibson and some other deserters basically re-enact that ‘Twilight Zone’ episode about the nuclear shelter but with a fishing boat instead of a nuclear shelter; and one on Dawson’s boat which makes the histrionics of ‘Dead Calm’ look like a piece by August Strindberg. Nolan’s preference for these moments over the genuine human drama of the men waiting on the beach speaks volumes about the film ‘Dunkirk’ could have been.

On a technical level, there’s little to dispute, however the performances are serviceable at best. Branagh squints and delivers his lines with all the engagement of a man who’s wondering when the pub opens. Rylance is dismal, trying for Everyman but forgetting that only the super-rich – whether it’s 1940 or 2017 – own yachts; his line readings are stilted and I’m still trying to figure out what accent he was attempting. Everyone else is basically forgettable. In fact, it says something that Harry fucking Styles is the film and his “performance” is functionally better than Mark Rylance’s!

Then we have the score. If the film itself hangs together at odds in the sum of its parts, weird tonal and aesthetic disconnects jarringly obvious from scene to scene and even within individual scenes, then the score summarises that feeling. I can only describe it as a score of two halves, not that it delineates so neatly in terms of its application throughout the film’s running time. It’s as if two entirely different scores had been commissioned, chopped up, and scattered across the film. The first uses two atonal motifs – one suggesting the inevitability of the tide, the other a thuddingly obvious “ticking clock” motif – and in the second is the kind of let’s-rip-off-Elgar-and-Vaughan-Williams orchestration that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hovis or Warburtons commercial.

But the biggest failing is Nolan’s insistence that the audience’s engagement be entirely based on a handful of cardboard cut-out characters. Dunkirk was an evacuation. The experience was collective. The odds against both soldiers and the pilots of the “little ships” were phenomenal. For all that he fills the film with carefully constructed long shots of beach and sea and columns of men, Nolan fails to communicate any sense of scale.



*Yes, Nolan wrote a script where an English soldier’s name is Tommy. Yes, my reaction was pretty much as you’d imagine.


**I will have more to say about Hans Zimmer before this review is over. It will not be pretty.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

It Comes at Night


Trey Edward Shults’s second feature film is an austere and controlled enquiry into what happens when— … No, wait. Almost wandered into spoiler territory there.

The genius of ‘It Comes at Night’ is that is takes a set of immediately recognisable genre tropes and— … Bollocks! Almost did the spoiler thing again.

It’s going to be very difficult to talk about this film in anything but the vaguest terms without inadvertently giving something away. Or rather giving away the one incisive point that every aspect of the film is moving toward, and to which every aesthetic decision by its writer/director contributes.

Subject of its writer/director: Shults is twenty-eight. This is his second film. It’s almost sickeningly well made. He worked on Jeff Nichols’s modern classic ‘Midnight Special’. The star of that film – Joel Edgerton – took the lead role in ‘It Comes at Night’ and lent weight to the project by acting as producer. Trey Edward Shults – I say this again – is twenty-eight. Talented bastard!

The film opens in Romero territory with a small group of people – in this case a family – holed up in a farmhouse in the backwoods. It’s either the present or the very near future. Some form of virus is sweeping America, possibly the world. Patriarch Paul (Edgerton) has adapted to the crisis by the application of strict routine and rigorous self-discipline, the better to protect his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Measures include donning gas masks when venturing outside, obsessive personal hygiene, and maintenance of a small armoury in case of attempted intrusion. One such intrusion is by Will (Christopher Abbott), who mistakenly believes that the house is abandoned. Swiftly disarmed by Paul, Will tells him that his family are holed up at a residence some miles away and while they have sufficient food they are running low on water. His incursion was to scavenge for same. Paul and Sarah discuss the situation, the latter being of the opinion that moving Will and his family and whatever supplies they have into their house offers strength in numbers against possible other intrusions. Against his better judgement, Paul accompanies Will on a journey through a stretch of woodland that might not be entirely empty of antagonist.

That’s really all I can say. What follows relies on character dynamics and interactions. There’s Paul and Sarah’s interracial marriage – no big deal in the twenty-first century, huh? But the sight of Paul (white, bearded, rifle slung across his shoulder) barking orders at his (black, wary, slightly subservient) wife and son gives the audience something uncomfortable to think about. The contrast between Paul and Will is handled effectively; in a screenplay that doesn’t waste words, every scrap of dialogue between them accumulates meaning. Nuances, pauses, a slip that could be lie, half-truth or simple misunderstanding – these things keep the audience unsure. Where, if anywhere, do your sympathies lie? Then there’s Travis, on the cusp of adulthood, vulnerable to the attentions of another father figure, not to mention— … ah, but I very nearly went waltzing down Spoiler Street again.

‘It Comes at Night’ is cannily scripted and, once you get past a draggy and rather po-faced first 15 minutes, generates slow-burn tension with a single-minded focus. Shults perhaps overuses Travis’s recurring nightmares to generate a horror movie vibe; the “jump” scares he effects by such means are the most generic aspects of the film and not as effective as the genuine moments of horror that are derive from the darker corners of the human psyche. Nor is he quite as acute a chronicler of the way men behave around each other as, say, Sam Peckinpah or Walter Hill, but that might be down to his comparative youth. Shults has talent to burn two years shy of thirty. There’s nothing to suggest that he won’t, in the coming years, deliver some outright masterpieces.

If ‘It Comes at Night’ doesn’t quite stretch its toe into masterpiece territory, it’s still damn good. Shults is smart enough to take his time and let his characters drive the narrative rather than the other way round (a failing of plenty of filmmakers twice his age). He knows how to stage a scene for maximum squirmy tension, how long to hold a shot and when to cut away. Self-evident stuff, you might think, but done with such intuitive confidence that half an hour into the film I hitched up onto the edge of my seat and, despite all of the bleakness and lack of hope on offer, grinned in anticipation of how it would play out, knowing that I was in the hands of a filmmaker who really knows what he’s doing.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Baby Driver


I went into Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ not knowing what to expect – the trailer couldn’t have been more generic if it had tried – but with the mindset that all it had to do was be a damn good car chase movie. It’s been too long since we’ve had a good car chase movie. (And anyone who’s rehearsing a “but the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise” argument can leave by the garage door: those things are what a Michael Bay movie would be if the Transformers stayed as vehicles; they’re porn with Turtle Wax instead of cum shots.)

‘Baby Driver’ is the opposite of porn: it’s a pure romance. It’s a love letter to cinema. A love letter to music. A love letter to movement – be it a car chase, a foot chase, or some ad hoc dance moves on a city street – and the exuberant energy of things simply being in motion. A love letter to enigmatic loners who don’t say much and the winsome girls who fall for them anyway. A love letter to smart-talking crims and meticulously planned heists. A love letter to abandoned warehouses and underground car parks. A love letter to the city and the freeway.

It’s almost a romantic musical and certainly a love letter to a city, and it does a damn sight better job in both respects than ‘La La Land’.

And at its absolute best – at its purest and most joyously infectious – it’s an abstract work of cinema that meshes kinetics and soundtrack for the sheer love of what it can do with music and motion, iconography and editing. As such, there’s little point in talking about the plot (a wholly derivative affair) or the acting except to note that everyone turns in a performance that is exactly what the film requires to sustain its non-car-chase bits. Kevin Spacey is typically deadpan, John Hamm ought to have a bigger film career, and Eiza González wins the Agitation of the Mind Girls With Guns Award for being a total badass and hot as hell with it.


Where ‘Baby Driver’ finds itself on shakier ground its during the last half hour or so where Wright suddenly remembers that he’s supposed to be making a genre film and the tyre-squealing fun gets cudgelled and locked in the trunk and the film goes on a slow plod through the demeaned streets of Cliché Town. Wright clearly wants to have his cake and eat it à la Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’, another film-as-experiment where the genre trappings provide a comfort zone for a mainstream audience; but whereas Wheatley mines a cynical vein of gallows humour that is integral to his film’s aesthetic (there is a streak of cruelty that runs through all his work), Wright never fully convinces when he piles on the macho thrilleramics in the last act. It just comes across as hollow posturing. Likewise, the series of flash-forwards that conclude the protagonist’s story are just plain dull: the moment Ansel Elgort slides from behind the wheel or doesn’t have Lily James’s too-sweet-to-be-true waitress to interact with, he ceases to hold any interest for the viewer.

It’s not a bad enough ending to derail the film entirely (I’m looking at you, ‘The Forest’!), but it certainly undoes some of the good work that’s gone before. In a perfect world, there’s a 90 minute cut of ‘Baby Driver’ with 50% less dialogue, where the cars get star billing and Eiza González firing off two machine pistols fulfils the quota of gunplay. That film would be a pop-art masterpiece.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle


Julien Temple’s ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ posits that there’s no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll. It does so by mapping out a fictive account of the Sex Pistols’ formation and rise to notoriety, every aspect stage managed and the band’s popularity nothing but a money-grabbing con job. When even something as working class and reactionary as punk is little more than another establishment sleight of hand, Temple seems to be asking, what can you trust?

Paul Sng’s ‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle’ asks a similar question: when the very concept of affordable housing is unmasked as anything but, what hope is there for the working class, the poor, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised? What quality of life for those whose only aspiration is a roof over their head?

The similarity in titles is no coincidence: Sng’s previous film ‘Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain’ showcased the UK’s angriest band kicking against the country’s political culture of austerity. Sng is keyed into the reality of life lived without support, sympathy or safety net. Two films into his career and he emerges, already, as an exemplary chronicler of the social underbelly and the establishment’s investment in keeping the poor and vulnerable poor and vulnerable.

Clocking in at a taut 82 minutes, ‘Dispossession’ economically deals with over half a century of social history, charting the progressive achievements of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government to provide for its least-advantaged citizenry, to the free-market driven attitude of the Thatcher era. The right-to-buy scheme turned council houses into pieces in a huge property game, and the prevalent socio-political model was one that rewarded greed, divided communities and trampled on the underprivileged.

Thatcherism is something Britain has never quite recovered from: last year’s referendum scratched the surface of the country and right-wing belligerence came bubbling up; since then, Theresa May’s increasingly out-of-touch leadership has seemed more and more like a Z-grade Margaret Thatcher tribute act. The cluster of disasters on her watch during, and just after, the ill-advised snap election culminated in the Grenfell Tower fire. I saw ‘Dispossession’ at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema just days after the Grenfell disaster and it gave an already hard-hitting documentary even greater relevance.

Sng focuses on the St Anns estate in Nottingham, Tower Hamlets and Cressingham Gardens in London, and Govanhills and the Gorbals in Glasgow. In respect of the latter, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears in interview and admits that improvements are unlikely to happen along a timeline that residents would wish for. She presents as calm and reassuring but Sng’s DoP Nick Wood captures images that tell a different story. Still, kudos to Sturgeon for appearing; she and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas are the only MPs who contribute.

Elsewhere, councillors and property developers (and those with fingers in both pies) decline to put forward their side of the story. The silence is particularly damning from those behind the Cressingham Gardens redevelopment, where the current residents, who put forward a “People’s Plan” to regenerate the estate, are ignored despite their plan being highly workable and their protests visible. The proposed redevelopment will see the estate bulldozed and replaced by luxury flats. Of the 1034 homes that look set to be demolished – ‘Dispossessed’ ends with Cressingham residents vowing to continue the fight – only 82 of a proposed 2704 new residences are earmarked for social housing. The result will be the death of a community, with families (as well as single and/or vulnerable residents) scattered and rehoused in any number of far-flung places. The only winners here will be the property developers.

But that’s what this is all about. We haven’t come that far from the slum clearances and dodgy landlords of the Victorian era, a fact that ‘Dispossession’ identifies with palpable bitterness. The film also tackles the concept of gentrification, noting that historically this was a gradual process of social development. Gentrification nowadays is a bullyboy council wielding a compulsory purchase order on behalf of a property developer with an eye on overseas investment.

With the odds stacked in the establishment’s favour, what can be done? Education, to begin with – see the film, visit the website, read up on the various campaigns. Then be active: support said campaigns, badger your MP, use social media. Get angry. Demand that the government be held to account.

Narrated by Maxine Peake (one of the most socially conscious and politically active talents in British cinema), ‘Dispossession’ is a film for our times. I can’t think of a single more important documentary feature to come out of Britain in the last decade.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Homesman


As a director, Tommy Lee Jones isn’t exactly prolific: four features in just over twenty years, two of them – ‘The Good Old Boys’ and ‘The Sunset Limited’ – for television. His big screen directorial debut was ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ (2005), a contemporary western concerned with revenge and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Peckinpah. It’s a damn good movie; close as all hell to being a modern classic.

‘The Homesman’ is a western set in the 1850s concerned with failure and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Michael Cimino. In both films, Jones acknowledges his influences and draws on them subtly and respectfully in the service of the story he’s telling. ‘The Homesman’ has the stateliness and the visual grandeur of Cimino circa ‘Heaven’s Gate’ – cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the film’s unsung hero – the better to contrast with the dour narrative and its unsettling accretion of detail.


The film opens with three women in a hardscrabble Nebraska township emerging from a particularly vicious winter having succumbed to mental illness. “Mad women”, as the townsfolk are quick to label them. The parson, Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow), arranges for their care to be given over to a preacher’s wife in Iowa and calls upon one of his flock to make the journey: an undertaking of several weeks. When farmer Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) – husband to the afflicted Theoline (Miranda Otto) – refuses to take part in a drawing of lots to determine who gets the job, spinster of the parish Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) takes his place.

No prizes for guessing who ends up playing chauffeur to the disturbed women?

In addition to Theoline, Mary Bee’s charges number Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) and Gro Svendson (Sonja Richter). I’ll not reveal that nature of their mental illness: an unflinchingly blunt sequence early in the film – fleshed out by a couple of flashbacks around the midway point – spells out their suffering. Mary Bee – brittle, pious, frustrated in her attempts to find a husband – isn’t the ideal candidate for the company of the demented. Early in the journey, the incessant wailing of one of her charges drives her to despair. The hard realities of the journey don’t sit well with her, and the arrangement she enters into with petty criminal George Briggs (Jones) to assist on the trail as recompense for saving him from hanging is also fraught; they’re opposites in gender, age, social standing, theological views and general outlook on life.


As the journey progresses, Jones – co-scripting as well as directing (film is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout*) – maps the gradual thawing of their relationship, only for things to take a sharp and unexpected turn. Again: I’m remaining tight-lipped. Suffice it to say that the last third of ‘The Homesman’ plays out under the shadow of the event in question, giving it the feel of an extended coda … notwithstanding one scene of stone cold ruthless violence that is cathartic only to a point.

‘The Homesman’ is a fascinating piece of work, primarily because of its focus on mental illness. It’s a theme that wrong-foots you as a viewer, subverting what you expect from a western even as the production design, cinematography and music evoke the genre as classically as in anything by Ford, Cimino or Eastwood. Inasmuch as Jones can only portray his female cast in terms of the few social roles that the rampant patriarchy of frontier life afforded women, ‘The Homesman’ can also be considered a feminist western. Jones as director has great respect for the film’s treatment of its anti-heroines and even two scenes depicting the grubby realism of personal hygiene on a long trial are shot without recourse to exploitation.

Any film so strongly grounded in character succeeds or fails by its performances. Jones gives a minimalist, elegiac variation on a type of character he’s played several times before and can play to perfection. Except where Briggs is required to be the focal point for a scene’s dynamic, Jones he is careful to keep himself to the side – if not in the background – and cede the film to his co-stars. Swank is as brilliant as you’d expect: I don’t think anyone else could have played Mary Bee.


Otto, Gummer and Richter, notwithstanding that they barely have a word of dialogue between them, turn in genuinely affecting character work. Streep, in a five minute cameo, does her best work since Eastwood’s ‘Bridges of Madison County’. Hailee Steinfeld, popping up at the end to literally be nothing more than an indicator of Briggs’s capacity for good, suggests soulful depths to a character that is pretty much one-dimensional on the page.

Everything else about ‘The Homesman’ works beautifully and in concert. It is a stunningly well-made film, glacially paced as befits its narrative; a film of telling minutiae and elegantly nuanced grace notes; it is mature, intelligent and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Which, sadly, it failed to find on the big screen. But that’s what DVD, streaming and on-demand are for. Seek this one out, engage with it on its own terms, go through what its characters experience. It’s transformative.


*Robert Rossen’s ‘The Came to Cordura’, Henry Levin’s ‘Where the Boys Are’, and Don Siegel’s autumnal classic ‘The Shootist’ are all based on Swarthout’s work.